The war on the Western Front bogged down into siege conditions by November 1914. Both sides faced the need to break through the enemy’s defensive entrenched positions. It was not long before an ancient art was remembered and used most effectively: mining under the enemy lines, placing explosives and blowing them up. In some areas, both sides mined and counter-mined intensively. For the infantry above ground, the wait for underground explosions was nerve-wracking indeed; for the men underground, hard toil often came accompanied by sudden death.
The first use of underground mine warfare
The pre-war British army had no specific organisation for carrying out sapping, mining and tunnelling operations, although most men of the Royal Engineers received some training in the subject. Digging beneath an enemy position with the object of destroying it is essentially an act of siege warfare, and military planning did not believe that this was a serious possibility. However, by the end of 1914 it was clear that the entrenched positions of the Western Front were akin to siege conditions.
On 20 December 1914 ten small mines – each subsequently discovered to have been 50kg of explosive, driven under the British positions from saps in the German front-line system – were blown at Givenchy. An infantry attack followed, and over 800 men of the Indian Corps were lost. By January 1915, it was evident that the Germans were beginning to mine on a definite system.
On 3 December 1914 the commanding officer of IV Corps, Sir Henry Rawlinson, requested the establishment of a special battalion to assist with mining duties. On 28 December, in the tense time following the first German mine attacks, Major John Norton Griffiths – a larger than life character, formerly an MP and an officer of the 2nd King Edward’s Horse – suggested the hiring of ‘clay kickers’, men with a particular skill who had been employed in mining for the London Underground. Meanwhile the army was ordered to proceed with offensive mining operations using any suitable personnel they could find from within the ranks. These men were formed intoBrigade Mining Sections. On 17 February 1915 the first British mine was blown at Hill 60 by RE troops of 28th Division.
The first Tunnelling Companies are formed
A decision was taken in February 1915 to form eight Tunnelling Companies, made up of men drawn from the ranks, mixed with drafts of men specially recruited for this kind of work. This has been described as the quickest intentional act in the war: men who were working underground as civilians in the UK on 17 February were underground at Givenchy only four days later, such was the urgency of needing countermeasures against the aggressive German actions. Another twelve Companies were eventually formed in 1915, and one further one in 1916. A Canadian Tunnelling Company was formed in France and two more arrived from home, by March 1916. Three Australian and one New Zealand Tunnelling Companies arrived on the Western Front by May 1916. All of these units were engaged on underground work including the digging of subways, cable trenches, saps, chambers (for such things as signals and medical services), as well as offensive or defensive mining. A Mine Rescue School was formed in Armentieres in 1915.
Underground warfare develops
Once both sides had embarked on mining operations, there was a determined struggle for tactical superiority in those areas where conditions were favourable. At Hill 60, The Bluff, St Eloi, Aubers Ridge, Hooge, Givenchy< and Cuinchy, where the front lines were relatively close together and the geology suitable for tunnelling, the mining companies sought ways to not only drive mines for destroying enemy positions, but developed measures of detection of the enemy mine systems. When detected, an enemy mine would be immediately destroyed by the explosion of a camouflet, often at the cost of severe damage to ones own system. There were many underground encounters, as a tunnelling team, breaking into an enemy position, met the enemy underground. Sometimes these encounters included fighting in the tunnels and chambers.
The blowing of mines below enemy front line positions became a regular feature of local actions. Infantry tactics developed that would enable the rushing and capture of the crater formed by the explosions. The craters were often themselves a dominant ground feature, as the lip of earth thrown up was usually higher than the ground in the area, giving possible observation over the enemy. Crater fighting became a highly dangerous and unpleasant feature of many actions in 1915 and early 1916.
Mining in support of larger infantry offensives was also adopted, with increasing numbers of mines of increasing size being used in the first minutes of the major British attacks at Aubers Ridge (May 1915), Loos (September 1915) and the Somme (July 1916). Gradually, the British tunnellers gained ascendancy.
Craters – legacy of mine warfare
After the immense and successful demonstration at Messines of the superiority that the Tunnelling Companies had achieved, there was relatively little mining activity. This was largely due to the return to a more fluid war of movement in which siege methods became irrelevant. The tunnelling troops were more often engaged in construction work, and in creating underground subways for infantry to shelter in and to reach the front lines without molestation. In the crises of Spring 1918, they were often called upon to act as emergency infantry. When the tables turned and the Allies began to advance in late July 1918, they worked on making safe the many towns, villages and facilities they captured, including the very dangerous work of rendering harmless the many explosive devices that had been left behind.
Principal areas of mining activity in France and Flanders
between Ypres and Armentieres
between Armentieres and Arras
on the Somme battlefield
French and German mining extended down into the Champagne, the Argonne and further south. A particularly impressive site, with extensive remains of craters and underground galleries, is the mine-riven hill at Vauquois.
The history of the Tunnelling Companies RE
Please note that the movement details described below have some gaps – and no doubt some inaccuracies. If anyone can help fill in the missing details, please contact me.
|170th Tunnelling Company||Formed in February 1915, and initially attached to 11th Field Company RE. With a nucleus of civilian sewer-workers from Manchester, with miners withdrawn from a number of infantry battalions (8/South Wales Borderers; 11/Welsh; 8/South Staffords). Rushed to Givenchy for operations to counter enemy activity. Relieved by 176th Company in June 1915. Employed under the command of 2nd Division on operations near Cuinchy and the Brickstacks in Summer 1915. Blew two mines at the Hohenzollern Redoubt in the opening of Battle of Loos. Remained in this very active area for a considerable time. In April 1918, troops of the Company fought a large fire in Bethune.|
|171st Tunnelling Company||Formed of a small number of specially enlisted miners, with troops selected from the Monmouthshire Siege Company,RE. First employed in March 1915 in the Hill 60/Bluff areas at Ypres. Moved to Ploegsteert in July 1915 and commenced mining operations near St Yves. April 1916 saw a move to the Spanbroekmolen/Douve sector facing the Messines ridge. Forced to move from camp at Boeschepe in April 1918, when the enemy broke through the Lys positions and were then put on duties that included digging and wiring trenches over a long distance from Reninghelst to near St Omer.|
|172nd Tunnelling Company||First employed in the Bluff/St Eloi areas at Ypres. Focused on the Bluff when 175th Company extended its area to Hill 60 in July 1915. Relieved 181st Company in Rue du Bois area in March 1916, but soon moved back to the Bluff. Moved to Neuville St Vaast/Vimy in April 1916. March 1918 saw the Company working on a new defensive line on the Somme, near Bray St Christophe. It fought as emergency infantry near Villecholles, and carried out a fighting retreat. In April 1918, troops of the Company fought a large fire in Amiens.|
|173rd Tunnelling Company||On formation, moved into the Fauquissart area. Employed under the command of I and Indian Corps on operations in preparation for attack at Aubers Ridge. Extended to Rue du Bois and Red Lamp areas soon afterwards. Employed under the command of 2nd Division on operations near Cuinchy in Summer 1915. Moved to Hulluch-Loos area in January 1916. Spring of 1917 saw another move, to the Ypres canal sector near Boesinge. In March 1918, they were working on the Fifth Army’s ‘Green Line’ near Wiencourt when the great German attack opened, and had to halt a panic retreat by French (and probably British) units on the Guillaucourt-Marcelcave road. 253rd Company were also brought into this. Unlike the latter (see below), the best that 173rd could offer was an officer playing a piano dragged to the roadside to try to calm things! After this, the Company played an important role in destroying the Somme bridges in an attempt to slow the enemy advance. Personnel were converted into infantry – called No 2 RE Battalion – for emergency purposes on 25th March 1918, along with other RE troops from XIX Corps. Eventually moved north, the Company was forced to move from camp at Boeschepe in April 1918, when the enemy broke through the Lys positions and were then put on duties that included digging and wiring trenches over a long distance from Reninghelst to near St Omer. This Company has the distinction that one of it’s officers, Capt. D. Richards, MC – was the last of the Tunnelling Companies to leave French soil after the Armistice.|
|174th Tunnelling Company||On formation, moved into the Houplines area. Also in Rue du Bois sector in 1915. Moved to the Somme in July 1915, taking over French mine workings between La Boisselle and Carnoy. Gave up part of this front to newly-formed 183rd Company in October 1915, and concentrated on Mametz sector. By October 1916, had moved north of the Ancre, facing Beaumont-Hamel. In the German attack of March 1918, suffered severe casualties while working on machine-gun emplacements at Bullecourt. Fought as emergency infantry. Soon after, worked on a long section of trench near Monchy-au-Bois.|
|175th Tunnelling Company||Formed at Terdeghem in April 1915, and moved soon after into the Railway Wood-Hooge-Armagh Wood area of the Ypres Salient. Extended to the Hill 60 in July 1915. Relieved in May 1916 by the 1st Australian Tunneling Company. Moved briefly to Spanbroekmolen in April 1916. Destroyed the entrance inclines to Hermies catacombs in March 1918, as the enemy advanced from Cambrai. Built bridges over the Ancre in the British advanced on the Somme in Autumn 1918.|
|176th Tunnelling Company||Formed at Lestrem in April 1915, and moved soon after to the Neuve Chapelle area facing Bois du Biez. Moved to Givenchy in June 1915. Employed under the command of 2nd Division on operations near Cuinchy in Summer 1915. Moved to Neuville St Vaast/Vimy in April 1916, remaining there for a considerable time.|
|177th Tunnelling Company||Formed at Terdeghem in June 1915, and moved into a wide area facing Wytschaete. Relieved there in November 1915, and moved to Railway Wood, where it remained for 2 years. March 1918 saw the Company working on construction of the Fifth Army’s ‘Green Line’ near Templeux, when the enemy attack struck. After this the Company was engaged in Somme bridge demolition, and other defensive activities.|
|178th Tunnelling Company||On formation, moved to the Fricourt sector of the Somme. Moved up to try to mine enemy positions in High Wood, as the advance progressed in July 1916. In March 1918, the Company was spread in Fins, Gouzeaucourt and Heudicourt, when the enemy bombardment struck these places. After this the Company was engaged in Tortille bridge demolition, and other defensive activities.|
|179th Tunnelling Company||Formed in Third Army area in October 1915, and moved into the Thiepval-La Boisselle sector of the area of the Somme recently taken over by the BEF.|
|180th Tunnelling Company||Formed at Labuissiere in Autumn 1915, and moved into the Vermelles sector. It was engaged in constructing saps and trenches, in addition to much carrying work, during the Battle of Loos. Moved to the Givenchy area, and relieved there in early 1916 by 255th Company. In March 1918, the Company acted as emergency infantry, fighting a defensive action near Ronssoy before withdrawing to Hamelet. The Company did much work in Albert during the great advance to victory, repairing all kinds of works and removing unexploded charges and mines. They did the same in Epehy in November 1918.|
|181st Tunnelling Company||Formed at Steenwerck in Autumn 1915, and moved into the Rue du Bois sector. Relieved by 172nd Company in March 1916 and moved south to face Vimy ridge with Company HQ in Berles. By Spring 1917, were in Ronville near Arras, working in the caves and tunnels in that area.|
|182nd Tunnelling Company||Working in positions near Bailleul in October 1915. Took over the newly-begun Kruisstraat deep mines near Wytschaete. Moved to Armentieres and relieved there in March 1916 by 1st Canadian. Spring 1916 saw a move to Berthonval and the construction of subways in Zouave Valley. At the time of the German attack of March 1918, the Company was in the very southern area occupied by Fifth Army, scattered over a wide area. Gathered near Fargniers (near Tergnier on the St-Quentin canal), the Company was used as emergency infantry in the defence of Nos 1 and 2 Keeps. This was followed by a fighting withdrawal to Baboeuf and then Varesnes (near Noyon). When the tide turned, troops of the Company were involved in the capture of the Bellicourt canal tunnel, Landrecies and Le Cateau.|
|183rd Tunnelling Company||Formed in Rouen in October 1915, and proceeded to Fontaine-les-Cappy, south of the Somme. Moved to Carnoy-Maricourt to prepare mines and saps for Fourth Army attack on the Somme, 1st July 1916. Forced to move from camp at Boeschepe in April 1918, when the enemy broke through the Lys positions and were then put on duties that included digging and wiring trenches over a long distance from Reninghelst to near St Omer.|
|184th Tunnelling Company||Formed in Rouen in October 1915, moved immediately to the Somme area, for work at Maricourt. By Spring 1916 was active at Vimy. Before the attack at Arras in April 1917, the Company were engaged on Fish Avenue Tunnel, and in helping construct emplacements for heavy mortars. Moved to Nieuport in June 1917. Worked on underground shelters along the coast to La Panne. Moved to Ypres-Brielen sector to prepare tank crossings over Ypres canal for attack on 31st July 1917. Forced to move from camp at Boeschepe in April 1918, when the enemy broke through the Lys positions and were then put on duties that included digging and wiring trenches over a long distance from Reninghelst to near St Omer.|
|185th Tunnelling Company||Formed in Rouen in October 1915, moved immediately to the Somme area, for work at La Boisselle. Moved to the Labyrinth sector near Vimy in March 1916. This Company dug subways near Neuville St Vaast in early 1917. Troops of the Company were the first British to enter Douai, on 17th October 1918, during the great advance to victory.|
|250th Tunnelling Company||Formed in Rouen in October 1915, and relieved 177th Company. Dug the deep-level mines (Petit Bois, Peckham and Spanbroekmolen) under the Messines ridge.|
|251st Tunnelling Company||Formed at Rouen, this Company took over from 170th in the Loos area in October 1915, around Cuinchy-Cambrin-Auchy, where it remained for a considerable time. Blew the last mine fired by the British in the Great War, near Givenchy, on 10th August 1917. By April 1918, the Company were in the area between the Lys and La Bassee canal, working on defensive schemes. They took part in the successful defence of Givenchy when attacked in that month.|
|252nd Tunnelling Company||Employed in the Hebuterne-Beaumont-Hamel sector of the Somme battlefield, this Company dug Russian saps facing Serre and a large mine at Hawthorn Redoubt, ready for the opening of the battle of 1st July 1916. Continued operations in this area throughout the battle. Engaged in defensive mining operations when facing the enemy attack near Boursies in March 1918.|
|253rd Tunnelling Company||Moved after formation in January 1916 to Sailly Labourse and the front line areas of the old Loos battlefield, north of the Vermelles-Hulluch road. In mid-1917, the Company was engaged in constructing light railways to the battery positions of Fifth Army, preparatory to the 31st July 1917 attack at Ypres. In March 1918, they were at rest in Wiencourt when the great German attack opened, and had to halt a panic retreat by French (and probably British) units on the Guillaucourt-Marcelcave road by placing trucks across the road. Absorbed into Carey’s Force, and dug in as infantry in front of Marcelcave on 26th March 1918. After a disjointed defensive battle and suffering more than 100 casualties, the Company reformed at Boves.|
|254th Tunnelling Company||Formed in England and moved to Gallipoli in December 1915, where it merged with the existing VIII Corps Mining Company – but too late to have any serious impact on operations there. Moved to France and relieved 176th Company in northern Givenchy area in Spring 1916.|
|255th Tunnelling Company||Formed January 1916, taking some officers and men from 173rd. Moved into Red Lamp-Neuve Chapelle sector. Relieved in that area by 3rd Australian in Spring 1916. Was engaged in digging of subways to the Vimy front in early 1917, specifically in the Calonne-Souchez area. At this time the 255th also constructed two 50,000-gallon underground water reservoirs, for the supply of forward troops in the Vimy attack of April 1917. Late in 1917, at least part of the Company was working in tunnels near the Sunken Road, Givenchy. Forced to move from camp at Boeschepe in April 1918, when the enemy broke through the Lys positions and were then put on duties that included digging and wiring trenches over a long distance from Reninghelst to near St Omer.|
|256th Tunnelling Company||The last Tunnelling Company to be formed, in July 1916, it initially moved to the Vimy front. Moved to Nieuport in June 1917, to construct shelters and wells. Involved in enemy attack in this coastal sector in July 1917.|
|257th Tunnelling Company||Active in Neuve Chapelle area in April 1917. Left No 4 Base Depot in Rouen in June 1917, and moved to Bethune area. Assisted 5th Gloucesters in repelling an enemy attack near the Ducks Bill, Givenchy, soon afterward. Moved to Nieuport in the same month, to construct subways for Operation Hush. Involved in enemy attack – Operation Strandfest – in this coastal sector in July 1917.|
|258th Tunnelling Company||Formed under I Corps at Noeux-les-Mines on 5 May 1916 (other sources give Rouen in April 1916) and moved into Hill 70 sector near Loos. Personnel were converted into infantry – called B Company, No 1 RE Battalion – for emergency purposes on 25th March 1918, along with other RE troops from XIX Corps. They fought a dogged rearguard action near Vrély before withdrawing to Moreuil. Reformed on 31st March 1918, and placed on bridge demolition work. Forced to move from camp at Boeschepe in April 1918, when the enemy broke through the Lys positions and were then put on duties that included digging and wiring trenches over a long distance from Reninghelst to near St Omer.|
|VIII Corps Mining Company||An improvised unit formed on Gallipoli, which saw much activity against the Turks in the Helles area between mid 1915 and December of that year, when merged into the newly-arrived 254th Tunnelling Company.|
|Australian Mining Corps (or Battalion)||1,000 strong, assembled while in Egypt in early 1915 with the intention of employment at Gallipoli, but moved to France in May 1916 as a battalion. Split into the three Tunnelling and one special Companies shown below, and Corps HQ broken up.|
|1st Australian Tunnelling Company||Relieved 175th Company in May 1916 in the Railway Wood-Hooge-Armagh Wood area of the Ypres Salient. Relieved the Canadians at Hill 60 in November 1916, and were also active at Ploegsteert.|
|2nd Australian Tunnelling Company||Relieved 172nd Company in May 1916 in the Neuville St Vaast/Vimy area. Relieved the Canadians at the Bluff in January 1917. Moved to Nieuport in the same month, to construct subways for Operation Hush. Involved in enemy attack – Operation Strandfest – in this coastal sector in July 1917. In April 1918, troops of the Company fought a large fire in Peronne.|
|3rd Australian Tunnelling Company||Relieved 255th Company in May 1916 in the Laventie/Fauquissart area. During the great advance to victory in Autumn 1918, the Company constructed a road bridge at Moudit, under shell fire.|
|Australian Electrical Mechanical Boring and Mining Company||Based in Hazebrouck, carrying out repairs to equipment.|
|New Zealand Tunnelling Company||Trained at Falmouth, and moved to the Labyrinth sector near Vimy in March 1916. Relieved by 185th Company soon after and took over positions at Chantecler crossroads, near Roclincourt.|
|1st Canadian Tunnelling Company||Formed in eastern Canada, this Company moved to France and into the Ypres sector for instruction. Shortly afterwards, in March 1916, relieved 182nd Company near Armentieres. Moved to the Bluff in May 1916. Moved in January 1917|
|2nd Canadian Tunnelling Company||Formed in Alberta and British Columbia, this Company moved to France and into the Ypres sector for instruction. Shortly afterwards, in April 1916, relieved 172nd Company between Tor Top, Armagh Wood and St Eloi.|
|3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company||The original mining sections formed in 1st and 2nd Canadian Division were withdrawn from their positions south of Ypres, and were reformed into this new Company at St Marie Cappel in January 1916. It then began work at Spanbroekmolen and other places facing the Messines ridge. Were at the Bluff in early 1916, and Hill 60 in August 1916, where they were relieved by 1st Australian Company in November 1916. Forced to move from camp at Boeschepe in April 1918, when the enemy broke through the Lys positions and were then put on duties that included digging and wiring trenches over a long distance from Reninghelst to near St Omer. After the Armistice, the Company repaired the town waterworks at Roubaix.|